Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Full Frontal Nudity, Gender, and the Penis

[warning: contains images that may not be comfortable for workplace or other public computer constraints]

Debbie and Laurie say:

We missed Sezin Koehler’s Sociological Images post about full frontal nudity on HBO back in June. Koehler analyzes the frequent use of full frontal female nudity and the extremely rare use of full frontal male nudity on True Blood, Hung, and Game of Thrones. 

Koehler’s conclusion is:

Ultimately, nudity is rarely necessary to further a storyline.  Women’s nudity isn’t about plot, it’s about treating women as objects and men as human beings.  The problem is systemic. Women’s bodies exist in many of HBO’s varied worlds to serve men, circling us back to a culture of male entitlement that, in the case of [Elliott] Rodgers at least, led directly to violence.

We agree with Koehler’s article, and our more-or-less unique experience of photographing, writing about, and talking to and about naked men in extensive detail, when we were working on Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes makes us want to take the conversation in another direction.

Of course, not all bodies are male or female and not all penises belong to men. This post relates specifically to commercial television and movies, where trans and genderqueer bodies are extremely rare, and nearly always objectified on a different axis than we discuss here.

Here’s the thing. Women are objectified whether or not  we are depicted in the nude. Men are physically objectified more than they used to be twenty or thirty years ago (read Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male for a treatment of this issue), but the vast majority of television and movies, are made with the tacit assumption that men are the watchers and women are the watched. In academic language, these programs are made with the “male gaze.” Shows that never show a naked woman still constantly objectify women’s bodies.

This is why an image of a small portion of a woman’s unclothed body is a nude

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but only a full frontal picture of a man is a nude.
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Men’s full frontal nudity isn’t shown for lots of reasons. It’s still a real taboo (and women’s full frontal nudity is not, but showing labia is). Penises (especially relaxed penises) show the natural experience of being a male human. Once again, we quote Jonathan D. Katz from his piece in the Familiar Men keynote essay:

Female nudity can be ubiquitous, but to present the male body threatens to give the lie to the rich meanings we associate with it. All of which may explain why it’s so rare to see naked or near-naked men in art, advertising, popular media, or that host of other venues in which the female body is now coin of the realm. … I think novelist Dorothy Allison said it best when she remarked that she thought the penis was the original source of the literary concept of irony, that something so small and vulnerable could be accorded such impressive powers. To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus.

As for the show Hung, which is specifically about a man with a large penis, Koehler points out that “we only get one brief glimpse of it — and not even the whole.”

The very existence of a TV show which makes the invisible central, which builds its entire plot on that-which-cannot-be-revealed says a lot about how women’s bodies–however objectified–are real to the television/movie creative world and the audience, while the essentially male feature of men’s bodies is, in our current cultural context, purely metaphorical. The show is not — it can’t be — about Ray Drecker’s penis; it’s about how we imagine, and create, our own imagery of Ray Drecker’s penis. In contrast, a show about a woman’s body is about the character’s actual body.

All pictures of bodies, clothed and nude, are laden with the gender-specific, deeply embedded overtones that have been placed there by the tens or hundreds of thousands of images of bodies we’ve seen before. The embedded message about women’s bodies is “see all of me,” and the embedded message about men’s bodies is “I get to control what you get to look at.”

2 Responses to “Full Frontal Nudity, Gender, and the Penis”

  1. paul Says:

    Another layer of embedded message I’m aware of is that, in general, women’s bodies are inherently attractive (to ‘everyone’) while men’s bodies are inherently unappealing (to that same ‘everyone’). One of the many ways this manifests is in swimwear – girls’ and women’s swimsuits have become ever more revealing, since the more of the female body (and its state of arousal) that can be seen the better, while boys’ and men’s have become big, baggy tents that hide that crucial anatomy (including any possible hint of tumescence). Often I’ve heard men in Speedos ridiculed as ‘gross,’ and not limited just to men whose bellies have begun to spread. These attitudes are applied not just by adults but even by very young children to one another’s bodies as well as to the adult form. While if I squint I might be able to see that this difference between the attractive generic female and the unappealing generic male as reflecting greater male control of their body view on a sociological scale, to me as a man on a personal level it shouts of shame – not an empowerment but quite the opposite.

  2. Laurie Says:

    Paul,

    Sorry to be a little slowing responding – I’ve been getting over post show bug.

    You’re absolutely right about this layer of embedded message.

    The ‘male gaze’ tries to control perceptions of all bodies, men and women alike. ‘Empowerment’ covers a lot of ground; people of all kinds are disempowered, but those who train and enforce the standards include some women as well as men. So men who would like to be happy with their own bodies are indeed also oppressed by the ‘male gaze.’ Baggy swim suits are merchandized to young men, who are often already uncertain and embarrassed by their ‘boy parts,’ but allowed to show off their abs (as long, of course, as minimal body hair is evident).

    The perversity of these kinds of social control mechanisms are not an accident. When we were doing our work on Familiar Men, one of the things that became clear is that “masculinity” creates a standard that most men feel they can’t meet.

    Thanks for expanding the conversation.

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